It seems like every other week this season the Chicago Cubs have been able to call up a blue chip hitting prospect that has been shredding minor league pitching. First, it was talented third baseman Kris Bryant who started the year at Triple-A to make a marginal improvement to his defence. Next was middle infielder Addison Russell, acquired in last summer’s Jeff Samardzija blockbuster. Could last year’s first round selection, Kyle Schwarber, be next?
Schwarber, selected No. 4 overall in last June’s amateur draft, wasted no time making his impact known. He rocketed through three levels of Class-A ball last summer — in the Northwest, Midwest and Florida State leagues — posting a combined .344/.428/.634 triple-slash line in 311 plate appearances. He hit as many home runs as doubles, 18, and produced a solid 12.5 percent walk rate. And for a power-hitter, his 18.3 percent strikeout rate wasn’t too shabby either.
For as good as his professional debut was, the 22-year-old has followed it up with an equally impressive start to 2015 with the Tennessee Smokies, Chicago’s Double-A affiliate. The left-hander owns a .296/.430/.600 slash line in 158 plate appearances. He already has crushed 10 home runs, a feat that required 191 PA’s last year at High-A Daytona, so there’s no reason to believe the power is about to slow down. Schwarber’s walk and strikeout rates currently sit at 19.6 percent and 22.8 percent respectively.
There were far fewer questions about Schwarber’s bat when he was drafted than there were regarding what position he would play. He was drafted as a catcher, but his 6-foot-0, 235 pound frame aren’t typical catcher measurements. However, he did spend significant time working on his mechanics and defence over the winter and manager Joe Maddon mentioned that he’s continuing to get better.
Schwarber’s bat is clearly more advanced than his fielding and we’ve seen several players in this situation moved from catcher to a corner position. Notably, Seattle Mariners first round pick in last year’s draft, Alex Jackson, was moved from catcher to right field. Schwarber has spent some time in left field and it seems like a likely landing spot should he not last behind the dish. He could also be a candidate for some time at first base, too.
Several scouting reports suggest Schwarber has the ability to become an average defensive catcher in time and could find success acting as more of a back-up while regularly playing somewhere else in the field.
If the left-hander is indeed able to improve his catching game and handle his own in the outfield, he could offer the club some versatility a la Stephen Vogt of the Oakland Athletics.
Right now the Cubs have Miguel Montero under contract through 2017 — and has a 125 wRC+ in 120 PA’s this season — so there isn’t an opening behind the plate in the short-term. Anthony Rizzo is off to an excellent start this year at first base and is signed through at least 2019 so there isn’t an opening there either.
Chris Coughlan is currently employed as the club’s regular left fielder but he and his 83 wRC+ are one area the Cubs could look to make an improvement with a playoff spot on the radar. It’s theorized that Schwarber could offer exactly that.
It may seem a little premature to talk about promoting a prospect who’s only had a cup of coffee at the Double-A level. Even Bryant received 330 PA’s at Triple-A before behind called up — and just look at what he’s done so far this year. Russell hadn’t even totalled 60 career PA’s at Triple-A before the Cubs elected to call him up earlier in the year, and he’s ten months younger than Schwarber. In both situations, it appears that Chicago’s aggressive approach has paid off.
There’s an argument that Schwarber could improve the Cubs immediately, but there isn’t really a need to force the issue right now. The 22-year old has proved he can handle minor league pitching so a promotion to Triple-A should be on the horizon. If he’s able to produce similar results after a few weeks at the higher level, then definitely the Cubs should look to add him to the big league squad.
If Schwarber were to be called up tomorrow he would join Carlos Rodon and Brandon Finnegan as 2014 first-round picks that have made their major league debuts — it’s still been less than a year since that draft took place.
At this rate Schwarber is definitely a candidate to see some time in the majors when rosters expand in September. If he continues to hit, that time could come even sooner.